Analysis |

As Israel Closes in on West Bank Militants, It Risks War With Gaza

With his back against the wall, political considerations might affect Bennett's strategic moves. Dramatic shifts in the prime minister's office and major national days make fertile ground for a flare-up

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Palestinian gunmen take aim during an Israeli military operation in the West Bank town of Jenin, on Friday.
Palestinian gunmen take aim during an Israeli military operation in the West Bank town of Jenin, on Friday.Credit: Majdi Mohammed/AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Alongside the stormy incidents and difficult photographs from the ground in recent days, several political developments and their possible consequences are worth noting. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett appears determined to remain in office and is willing to pay the necessary price.

On Friday he managed to remove a potentially rebellious lawmaker from his Knesset caucus and replace him with a minister who had to resign. He bid farewell to his political advisor, apparently his closest confidante in his office. Beyond the typical missteps of governments on the final lap of their term, one can expect Bennett’s conduct in the political and diplomatic realms to be affected.

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Before entering office, on some occasions, Bennett was known to make seemingly impulsive comments and decisions. His outgoing political advisor, Shimrit Meir, was to some extent the last person in Bennett’s inner circle who could put the brakes on his half-baked moves and security capers. Now, with the exception of his political advisors, only the head of the National Security Council, Eyal Holata, remains. But Holata rarely handles the Palestinian issue, which is currently at the top of Bennett’s agenda.

In Israel, as always, political and strategic considerations are linked. Politically, Bennett has his back to the wall. He is dealing with a new terror wave that is eight weeks in and showing no sign of abating.

The Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service have focused their efforts and intelligence resources in the West Bank. The army has deployed large forces along the Green Line. Now that Ramadan is over, the army has gone back to conducting arrest sweeps in the northern West Bank.

Israeli police confront with mourners as they carry the casket of Shireen Abu Akleh during her funeral in East Jerusalem on Friday.Credit: Maya Levin/AP

But none of this has been enough to seal off the seam line to the terrorists that are reaching central Israel at a rate of about one a week. The separation barrier has been completely breached. Repairing it will take several weeks and the nine and a half battalions deployed along the breaches will eventually have to go back to training.

The conditions are frustrating and challenge the already complex relationship between Bennett and the IDF brass. The continued attacks will increase pressure on the IDF General Staff to provide solutions – such as assassinating Hamas leaders, an assault on the Gaza Strip or a broad operation in and around Jenin in the West Bank. As this column has already stated, the army brass has its own reasons to hold back, not all of which are germane. The IDF is overly invested in the narrative that it vanquished Hamas in the last round of fighting a year ago, Operation Guardian of the Walls – and hence, Hamas cannot be responsible for the current wave of terror as it has already been deterred.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone at the professional level would presently support an operation in Gaza. If the take is given to the army, it might be dragged into an operation that it doesn’t believe in and the results will reflect that. On the political level as well, Bennett could find himself increasingly at odds with ministers Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz (the latter having been subjected to a long lesson on patriotism by the anchors of the Channel 12 current affairs show “Ofira and Berko”).

Compared to Gaza, Jenin is an easier target. In any case, IDF forces operate there on a near daily basis, and every entry into the city or adjacent refugee camp is greeted with massive gunfire. The ongoing friction already has Israel a half step away from an operation in the area. The number of militants killed grows from operation to operation, fueling Palestinian feelings of revenge.

Palestinians take part in a demonstration in support of Yahya Sinwar, Hamas' political chief, in Gaza City, last week.Credit: MAJDI FATHI/NurPhoto via AFP

While Hamas propaganda feeds worries about an Israeli takeover of the Temple Mount, some of the terrorists who came from the Jenin area on killing sprees within the Green Line came to avenge the deaths of their friends. More and more fuel is being added to the fire – the death of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Jenin, the police killing of an East Jerusalemite struck by a sponge-tipped bullet on Saturday morning at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and Nakba Day, which is marked on Sunday.

However, it would be difficult to completely separate what is happening in Jenin from Gaza. Islamic Jihad is very active in both places, and has already threatened to launch rockets from Gaza if its people continue to be killed in the West Bank. Recent history notes the 2014 abduction of three young men in Gush Etzion, which led to Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip about a month later. Operation Guardian of the Walls began with Hamas rocket fire at Jerusalem in solidarity with Palestinians clashing with police in the Old City during Ramadan.

Callous brute force

Meanwhile, events in the West Bank are not calming down. On Friday afternoon, the IDF released the interim conclusions of its probe into Abu Akleh’s death. Between the lines of the IDF spokesperson’s statement and statements by senior officers, it appears that it is possible Abu Akleh was accidentally shot by a soldier from the elite Duvdevan unit. However, because the Palestinian Authority is refusing to give up the bullet that killed the journalist for ballistic examination, and refused an autopsy, we will likely never know the full truth.

The probe indicates that the Duvdevan soldiers, who had come to arrest an Islamic Jihad operative, fired at least six rounds at the boundary between the refugee camp and Wadi Brukin, the eastern neighborhood of the adjacent village. In one instance, a soldier who fired was about 190 meters away from Abu Akleh.

He was sitting in a jeep, armed with a rifle with a telescopic lens, and shooting through a firing slit. The soldier aimed at an armed Palestinian who emerged three times from behind a wall and opened fire on the jeep. The journalists were a short distance behind the Palestinian. Firing from inside the jeep creates a limited field of vision: The soldier said when questioned that he did not see Abu Akleh and did not know he had shot her.

According to the investigation, there were more armed Palestinians behind the journalists that were firing at the soldiers. It cannot be determined whether Abu Akleh was killed by Israeli or Palestinian fire, so long as there is no ballistic examination.

On Friday morning IDF forces returned to Brukin, and surrounded a house about 300 meters from the spot where Abu Akleh was shot and where a wanted man was hiding. It was reported that the man was suspected of carrying out shooting attacks.

The IDF confirmed claims by Palestinian sources that he was the same man seen shooting at soldiers from an alleyway in the refugee camp in footage taken near the time Abu Akleh was shot. In the meantime, the possibility that Abu Akleh was shot in the exchange of fire that was depicted in that footage has been dismissed, but the army has avoided saying whether the arrest was intended to investigate the circumstances of her death.

For hours, an elite force of the police anti-terror unit laid siege to the house where the man was hiding, firing anti-tank missiles. The forces were under heavy fire. After the suspect and his brother gave themselves up, Warrant Officer Noam Raz was shot in the back and killed. Raz was the 20th Israeli killed in recent months – a high price that shows the extent to which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still an open wound.

Alongside the question of what precisely the goal of the operation was, there is a question of timing. During Ramadan, the IDF preferred to conduct arrests during the day to avoid large crowds in the streets after breaking the fast. But Ramadan is over. Operating in daylight increases the chances of hitting non-combatants. It also eliminates the advantage provided by Israeli forces’ advanced night-vision equipment.

That was not the last incident. As the operation in Wadi Brukin wound down, crowds gathered for Abu Akleh’s funeral in East Jerusalem. The circumstances surrounding the well-known journalist’s death made the funeral into a national Palestinian event.

Police were well aware of this and beefed up their forces. They conducted extensive talks with the organizers about arrangements for the funeral procession. According to police, all of the agreements were breached and stones were thrown at them.

That cannot justify the scenes that circulated all around the world: Dozens of armed police struck mourners with batons, nearly overturning the casket. The Jerusalem police, who showed impressive restraint during Ramadan this year (in stark contrast to Ramadan last year), failed shamefully. It was a display of callous brute force.

On television panel shows that night, participants spoke of unprecedented damage to Israel in the eyes of the international community, including a hesitant condemnation from the White House. But that’s not the point. This is not how human beings treat other human beings. These images arouse a deep feeling of shame. The police violence is apparently connected to other incidents. Shortly before the pallbearers were attacked, the police and army learned that Noam Raz had been killed at Wadi Brukin.

Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev rightly compelled Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai to appoint a team to investigate the incidents. It remains to be seen how much room to maneuver the police brass will give the team, itself composed of police officers.

If anyone had hoped that Nakba Day would pass in a slightly more restrained manner, those hopes have been dashed. The stormy month of May will continue at least until Jerusalem Day, in two weeks, and no one can promise that things will calm down afterward.

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